By Doug Ammons

Editors Note: 'Why Paddle Class Five?' first appeared on RPB in 1996, and was then later published in the Mar/Apr 99 issue of Paddler Magazine, ' Upping the Ante ', an issue which discussed the pros and cons of pushing the envelope beyond what was formerly considered possible. Doug is one of the best class five paddlers the U.S. has ever produced, and this essay has always been one of my personal favorites...   Enjoy.

I started out paddling because I loved the water. I learned the basic skills very quickly and after a couple of times on the river, found it was the wildest, most playful, beautiful damn sport I'd ever done. The people were great, the rivers were beautiful, the constant learning was a riot, it was challenging, exciting and there seemed no limit to what I could do or where I could go. Every bend was a new place full of fun, and every horizonline started the questions anew. By my second or third time on the river, I was completely hooked. And by the end of my first year, I was a fanatic.

I loved being on the river, constantly looking for new things to do and figuring out new skills. Exploring became a big thing, and I went all over the place finding and running new rivers. I got into competition, rodeos, downriver, and slalom.

I ran my first class five after I'd been paddling about two months. I didn't know very much, but as they say, ignorance is sometimes bliss. I'd been told the rapid was unrunnable, but as I looked I suddenly realized there was a straightforward line in an otherwise class six drop. It really was a question of seeing past the terrible intimidation all around the line. I committed, and ended up running it twice with no difficulties. That was a mindblower for me: if you looked just right you could find pathways that carried you through all the dangers right into the heart of the river. I'll never forget that day. The river opened up to me and beckoned so enticingly, so exquisitely, that I just had to follow. I couldn't help myself. Somehow, it had to do with seeing something true and deep about the water and myself.

I had a new goal, one that was even more compelling than the fun and excitement of my initial paddling. Very soon after that I was paddling with the best guys in my region on all the hard runs. Well, with good role models to learn from and great rivers to run, you can bootstrap yourself up pretty quickly. I went looking for new runs, mostly steep creeks tucked away in remote canyons. Exploring, topo maps, recon, first attempts, failures, waterfalls, rappels, complex portaging, weird and beautiful lines down sparkling clean spring streams. Sharing them with my best buddies, making new friends, committing to little adventures, getting thrashed but coming back doggedly who could ask for a better world to live in? A place clean and pure, where spring's snowmelt laughed with you as you paddled over the edge of the drop, and the next and the next... And all those days of friendship and worry and concentration and smiles melted together into the best feeling...

And the water is so beautiful! All the power and complexity, all the mystery and unknowable. I loved watching the smallest eddy, the tiny whirlpools and welling turbulence. And who wouldn't be mesmerized by 10,000 cfs pounding off a 30 foot ledge into a massive hole? Do you like looking at reality? Do you like seeing truth laid out in front of you, sunlight glinting off the spray and the boulders you sit on shaking with its power? Do you answer when you hear it calling?

Asked by my mentors to go on bigger and more committing trips, I never hesitated. In some ways it was more of the same, but with the bigger commitment came new territory. The trips changed their tenor. Doing first descents, big class five on steep creeks or big water near home, or at least not far from people, was one thing. Doing it up in the wilderness of Canada, Alaska, the jungle, or in the Himalaya was another. The pure fun stops being the point, and something else steps in. There's a whole new set of emotions that start becoming important when you're out in the middle of nowhere, deep in the bottom of some canyon, alone with a friend or two. When there are vertical walls, the river is disappearing in front of you around a corner, and all you can hear is a roar, then you start to feel the whole game is changed. I call this the real shit. Lots of people, even experienced paddlers, won't necessarily like it. But some people do. Something else comes out when you're committed in the deepest possible way.

Every sense comes alive, your awareness heightens in every way. The water is your life, and you see and sense everything about it. You listen to yourself and your partner and there's no bullshit. You stretch yourself out and there's no dividing line between you and the beautiful, dangerous place you're in. Every decision you make has huge consequences and so you treat it with care, with a delicacy and intensity that puts you entirely in that moment. And the smallest details become immense. Each surge of the current, each paddle stroke, each word take on an importance beyond what they ever could on any other kind of run. And for those hours or days or weeks, you become a different kind of person.

At some point along the way, I realized that kayaking was no longer a sport for me, it was much more. It was something I had to do. The decisions I made out there gave me something I needed. I needed the water and its beauty, its power and subtleties, its challenge and inspiration. I trained like mad, concentrated on every skill I could, and committed myself completely to my judgment. And after each trip - even the biggest personal accomplishments - I felt humbled and small, but maybe a little bit wiser. Like I'd seen a little farther into the world beyond the horizonline. And what I shared with the few friends who I went with, was something beyond friendship.